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Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics (Library of Theological Ethics)

Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics (Library of Theological Ethics) [Kindle Edition]

Cornel West , Reinhold Niebuhr

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Product Description

Arguably his most famous book, Moral Man and Immoral Society is Reinhold Niebuhr's important early study (1932) in ethics and politics. Widely read and continually relevant, this book marked Niebuhr's decisive break from progressive religion and politics toward a more deeply tragic view of human nature and history. Forthright and realistic, Moral Man and Immoral Society argues that individual morality is intrinsically incompatible with collective life, thus making social and political conflict inevitable. Niebuhr further discusses our inability to imagine the realities of collective power; the brutal behavior of human collectives of every sort; and, ultimately, how individual morality can mitigate the persistence of social immorality.

This new edition includes a foreword by Cornel West that explores the continued interest in Niebuhr's thought and its contemporary relevance.

About the Author

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) was one of America's foremost twentieth-century religious thinkers and social critics. As pastor of Bethel Evangelical Church in Detroit, he became deeply interested in social problems. He was Professor of Applied Christianity at Union Theological Seminary, remaining there until his retirement. Ultimately, he abandoned his liberal Protestant hopes for the church's moral rule of society and became a Socialist activist.

Product details

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 647 KB
  • Print Length: 324 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: B0006DCTFA
  • Publisher: Westminster John Knox Press; 2 edition (2 Jan 2013)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B00AZ3W2K8
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
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  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #243,504 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.2 out of 5 stars  26 reviews
53 of 55 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Moral Man & Immoral Society is a Timely Read 6 Sep 2008
By F. Johnson - Published on
I must confess that it took me 75 years to finally get around to reading Reinhold Niebuhr's now classic work on human behavior, "Moral Man and Immoral Society." Written during the Great Depression in 1932, it turned out to be a very timely read in 2008.

During his lifetime, Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) was perhaps the best-known Christian theologian in America. In 1915, he became minister of Bethel Evangelical Church in Detroit. From then until 1928, he personally witnessed the hardships of auto workers. This exposure made Niebuhr very critical of capitalism. In 1928, he began a long career with Union Theological Seminary in New York, serving first as professor of Christian ethics (1928-1960) and then Dean (1950-1960).

Niebuhr thought of himself as a preacher and social activist, but his theological writings on social ethics made him an important intellectual figure nationally. An early advocate of socialism, he eventually supported FDR's New Deal because he thought it was more just and more realistic than either Marxism or laissez-faire capitalism. A prolific writer and a popular, engaging lecturer, Niebuhr's influence was felt by Martin Luther King, policy makers in John Kennedy's administration, and even a young Barack Obama. In 1964, Niebuhr was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

An outspoken progressive and reformer from the beginning, Niebuhr was also a keen observer of human behavior. Niebuhr was critical of the pacifism that permeated the social programs of mainstream liberal Protestantism (the "Social Gospel") that sought to correct political and social injustices mainly through appeals to "reason." Niebuhr did not believe "reason" worked. In "Moral Man and Immoral Society," Niebuhr makes the case that man is basically selfish and that those who have power do not listen to "reason" - that they will never surrender power if it is not in their own self-interest. He wrote, "reason is always the servant of [self-] interest in a social situation." Niebuhr insists that "power" (e.g., armies, laws, trade unions, etc.) is the only method that can affect change and correct injustice in settling the competing claims of nations, races, and social classes.

At the beginning of the 21st century, Niebuhr may seem to be out of fashion. This is unfortunate because his writings and observations about human nature are still as relevant today as they were in 1932.

Consider these passages, for example:

"No personal whim, which a human being might indulge, is excluded from the motives, which have prompted [rulers] to shed the blood of their unhappy subjects. Pride, jealousy, disappointed love, hurt vanity, greed for greater treasures, lust for power over larger dominions, petty animosities between royal brothers or between father and son, momentary passions and childish whims, these all have been, not the occasional but the perennially recurring, causes and occasions of international conflict. The growing intelligence of mankind and the increased responsibility of [rulers] to their people have placed a check upon the caprice, but not upon the self-interest, of men of power. They may still engage in social conflict for the satisfaction of their pride and vanity provided they can compound their personal ambitions with, and hallow them by, the ambitions of their group, and the pitiful vanities and passions of the individuals who compose the group."

Of Napoleon, Niebuhr wrote, "He could bathe Europe in blood for the sake of gratifying his overweening lust for power, as long as he could pose as the tool of...patriotism and as the instrument of revolutionary fervor. The fact that the democratic sentiment, opposed to the traditional absolutisms of Europe, could be exploited to create a tyranny more [bloody] and terrible than those which it sought ostensibly to a tragic revelation of the inadequacies of the human [mental capacities] with which men must try to solve the problems of their social life."

Of Teddy Roosevelt (and the Spanish-American War) Niebuhr wrote, "The ambition and vanity which prompted him could be veiled and exalted because the will-to-power of an adolescent nation and the frustrated impulses of pugnacity and martial ardor of the...`men in the street' could find in him symbolic expression and vicarious satisfaction."

Clearly these passages have great relevancy as we examine the question of how the United States got involved in an unprovoked and unnecessary war in Iraq - a war that has cost us more than 4,000 American young men and women, and uncounted numbers of Iraqi citizens. Using words attributed to Plutarch, Niebuhr wrote, "The poor folk go to war, to fight and die for the delights, riches and [luxuries] of others."

Perhaps more readers may want to consider picking up a copy of "Moral Man and Immoral Society" to understand its relevancy and its insights on human nature and the uses and abuses of power.

Floyd Johnson
Peoria, Arizona
78 of 86 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Some Sun Through Clouds of Self-Interest 9 Feb 2006
By Charles G. Yopst - Published on
At first glance, Reinhold Niebuhr's (1892-1971) book "Moral Man and Immoral Society" (New York:Scribners, 1932, 1960), still relevant today, could seem to breed a cynical future "from the perspective of those who will stand in the credo of the nineteenth century," ". . . enmeshed in the illusion and sentimentalities of the Age of Reason." (xxiv) Niebuhr was a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, and previously pastor during the Great Depression of a small congregation in or near Dearborn, Michigan, many of whose parishioners worked for Ford Motor Company's factories. Niebuhr, having lived through the frustrations and hypocrisy of the Victorian era and economic depression and two World Wars, assessed people in group types of church denominations, nations, privileged classes, the middle class, blue-collar working classes, and mobs. He lamented the necessary time restraints that representative democracy requires and that permit self-interest to misuse information and lapse into greed.

The theme of Niebuhr's text is that sometimes more or less those persons who look and act morally, quickly revert to immoral behavior in the face of the crowd. This is a special, powerful, deceptive influence of emotional "contagion." He expands upon Lord John Acton's (1834-1902) famous sentence, "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely." (Letter to Bishop Creighton, April 5, 1887; Niebuhr, 6) "The Liberal Movement both religious and secular seemed to be unconscious of the basic difference between the morality of individuals and the morality of collectives, whether races, classes or nations." (ix, xi, xxv, 257f., 262, 1960 edition) He elaborates on the crowd's collective original sin powerful to influence others.

Religious insights, Niebuhr wrote, powerfully make people "conscious of their preoccupation with self." (54) "The disrepute in which modern religion is held by large numbers of ethically sensitive individuals, springs much more from its difficulties in dealing with those complexities [--ethics and politics (257) and economics (5, 15, 142)--] than from its tardiness in adjusting itself to the spirit of modern culture." (63, 75f.)

And about psychology, "There is nothing, that modern psychologists have discovered about the persistence of ego-centricity in [hu]man[ity], which has not been anticipated in the insights of the great mystics of the classical periods of religion." (54)

Niebuhr's ten chapters then continue to illustrate and explore his theme as basic to human nature, in a rich multiplicity of historical events: religion, politics, socialism, justice, wars, hypocrisy, and so on. Niebuhr cautions about blind belief in governments: "The creeds and institutions of democracy have never been fully divorced from the special interests of the commercial classes who conceived and developed them." (14) "Perhaps the most significant moral characteristic of a nation is its hypocrisy. We have noted that self-deception and hypocrisy is an unvarying element in the moral life of all human beings. It is the tribute which morality pays to immorality . . . ." (95, 117, 141, 177f.) Sinclair Lewis's (1885-1951) novel "Babbitt" (New York:Harcourt, Brace Co., 1922) reflects the history in Niebuhr's theme. So also does the historico-religious work of J. B. Noss's (and his brother David in later editions) "Man's Religions" (New York:Macmillan, 1964). Collective emotions, especially anger masked as justice, are exploited to their maximum.

Though Niebuhr wrestled with the basic polarization of authoritarianism versus true democracy and with human nature's compulsion of action-reaction, he does not reflect further upon and explore the phenomena that the majority consists of collections of minorities which control their leadership and polarization. (4, 5) Nevertheless, his perception of the historical human predicament is alarmingly accurate.

Niebuhr sees no comprehensive solution to this dilemma--the individual motivated by love and society by justice--though he hopes for groups of individuals that may bring about more of it. "Love must strive for something purer than justice if it would attain justice." (xxiv, 226, 264-266, 273f., 277)

The Rev. Dr. Charles G. Yopst, D.Min., D.T.R.
Mount Prospect, Illinois, NW of Chicago
80 of 91 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A classic! 12 Aug 2003
By A Customer - Published on
This book was written in the 1930's, but the ideas in it are absolutely fresh. This is a well-thought-out Christian response to the fact of evil in the world. It says the Christian must be "in the world" and use power to confront evil, but at the same time be held personally accountable to the highest ethical standard. This is for anyone who wants to work for social justice while avoiding anarchy, relativism, and divisive identity politics. Those who still want to stand for something in a postmodern age should start here.
35 of 40 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Kessinger Publishing 24 July 2008
By Thames - Published on
Buyer beware: Kessinger "Publishing" does not actually sell you a new printing of Niebuhr's book. What you end up with is actually just a photocopy of an old edition (in this case, the 1934 Scribner's printing). Unbelievably, it also includes page underlining and marginal notes, photocopied from a used and marked up version of the text. Apparently it was too difficult to find an unmarked text, or to white-out the markings when photocopying the text. If you want an unmarked version of this text, avoid the Kessinger version--you might as well buy a used copy of an actual printing rather than a photocopy of someone else's marked-up text. It is disingenuous, misleading, and possibly fraudulent for Kessinger to sell this as "new."
22 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Toolbox for American Civil Rights 15 Mar 2006
By Scott A. Huizenga - Published on
Niebuhr's answer to the question, "What then should we do?" influenced MLK's thinking and found its way into the action plan of the American civil rights movement. This work is well thought out and, decades later, remains truly readable to those of us who are not trained in psychology, theology or sociology. If you feel powerlessly subjected to the tyranny of the majority and want to do something about it -- read this book.
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